Facing criticism, Adobe rethinks PDF security

Promises more secure code, faster patching and regular updates for Reader

Blasted three months ago for being slow to fix a zero-day vulnerability in its popular PDF viewer, Adobe today promised it will root out bugs in older code, speed up the patching process and release regular security updates for Adobe Reader and Acrobat.

The flak Adobe caught in February, when it disclosed a critical vulnerability, admitted the bug was being used by hackers, but then took weeks to patch the problem, is what prompted Adobe to review its security practices, acknowledged Brad Arkin, Adobe's director for product security and privacy.

"At first, this was just another of our normal security incidents," said Arkin. "But it ended up expanding to [make] changes in our security practices with Reader and Acrobat."

The project, which kicked off in February, has three parts, said Arkin, starting with a look at the legacy code in Reader and Acrobat that he characterized as "at-risk areas."

Currently, Adobe develops new code under what it calls its Secure Product Lifecycle (SPLC), an approach similar to Microsoft's much-better-known Software Development Lifecycle (SDL), which involves several security-specific steps that programmers go through to make their software less liable to harbor bugs. From now on, said Arkin, Adobe will apply the SPLC methodology to some older sections of Reader and Acrobat, too.

"We're going to broadly look at the whole application, but focus on at-risk areas, where we'll do threat modeling, static code analysis and look for potential vulnerabilities," said Arkin, who refused to call that change a full-blown "code review," like the one Microsoft spent millions on to root out bugs in Windows XP.

"We're going to do a lot more pro-active work," he promised. "We want to shake loose vulnerabilities."

Adobe will also speed up its patching and communicate with users more frequently, Arkin said. The company was slapped by some in February for taking three weeks to fix the already-exploited bug, and then only for Reader and Acrobat 9; Adobe staggered the patch delivery for the other versions over several more weeks. A patch for a different zero-day vulnerability that Adobe issued this month was the first step toward that faster pace, said Arkin. "The fact that we were able to patch on May 12, and patch all [editions of] Reader and Acrobat on the same day, that's encouraging," he said.

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